It's A Lot Like Greek
by unknown author
A Greek teacher once told me that Greek was a grand language because when you use it, you may not always say what you mean to say, but you will always be saying something. Three plays now running in New York are like that.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a British dramatization of an 18th-century French epistolary novel, and Michael Bennettís 1981 hit Dreamgirls are imaginatively directed, well designed, well acted and about something. Audiences have been intelligently receptive, and the lobbies of the theaters buzz with excitement before the plays and explode with applause afterward. Theatergoers, knocked off their seats by "the theater," engage in lively "critical" conversation long into the night.
The New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Shakespeare's earliest and least respected play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, is deader than a 400 year old doornail. Its audiences leave Central Park's open-air Delacorte Theater befuddled by the preceding two and a half hours of schtick-ridden comic scenes that are not funny, cute rhythm-breaking scene changes and bumbling acting.
Just as the Brits do what they do best in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, their black American cousins strut their stuff up the street in Dreamgirls. This touring production, making its last stop on Broadway, presents New York audiences with some of the most dazzling choreography and direction (the late Michael Bennett's) ever to hit an American stage; and the new cast emphasizes the action of the play more keenly than the original cast.
The main reason for this is the shrewd recasting of the pivotal role, Effie. This production underscores the personal price singing artists must pay to be "commercial," and Effie is just one casualty on the "way up." Slightly overweight and clearly a black soul singer, she cannot "cross over." She has to go. Therefore, at the end of the first act, when she has found out she has been replaced and sings "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," you know she is already history. When Jennifer Holliday sang it, I remember thinking there is no way that woman is going. Consequently, Act Two seemed silly and unnecessary. This time around, without the "star," the second act makes sense and the play soars. Road show or not, it is the best musical on Broadway -- and its music has melody and drive that move the action.
Central Park's Two Gentlemen proves once again that imaginative sets, colorful costumes, tacked-on trick-laden direction. lovely music and a view of Manhattan cannot hide the indisputable fact that Americans are still afraid of Shakespeare. When this fear is most pronounced, we trot out our strengths (imaginative directing, "con- ceptual productions"), hide our weakness (language training) and haul off and imitate (poorly) Laurence Olivier.
These productions in New York this summer may seem to say "New York's theater is alive and well"; or "Broadway is healthier than ever"; or "Americans can do Shakespeare." I think not.
Rather than spend the money necessary to recast Les Liaisons with American actors ñ there are many actors and actresses waiting in the wings for the chance to go on, many of them excellent and good box office risks ñ the Shubert Foundation, the show's producer, decided to close the show September 6. This shortsighted, premature closing of this extraordinary play denies New York audiences top-notch theater and American actors jobs. The Shubert embody the Broadway producer's mind-set: If the show cannot make big money fast, do not bring it to New York. "Why bother?" most producers must be asking.
Next, the success of the roadshow version of Dreamgirls shows how hungry Broadway audiences are for real musicals, not just English clones or Las Vegas revues. But it also signals the shift of the center of even the lightest kind of American theater to anywhere but Manhattan. While some critics complain, "Why pay Broadway prices to see a roadshow?" this roadshow pushes the question back further: "Why pay Broadway prices at all?"
Dreamgirls has returned to Broadway in a production that is not so much a revival as a reduction or reproduction of the original. It premiered in 1982 at the Imperial Theater and was one of the pioneers in the ever-more-dominant musical comedy trend of scenery as star. This production, on the smaller stage of the Ambassador Theatre, is a pared-down 1985 roadshow version with new choreography, which is now at the end of its national tour. It returned to New York with melancholy timeliness, only a few days before the July 2 death of its director and choreographer, Michael Bennett. It is hard not to regard this Dreamgirls as, however inadvertently, a living memorial to the man who had been, since at least 1975's A Chorus Line, the prime mover of Broadway musical theater.
That that honor fell to a director/choreographer rather than to a composer/lyricist does say something about the recent condition of the Broadway musical, and Dreamgirls, in both its strengths and weaknesses, is a prime example of what the prime mover hath wrought. The physical stagecraft, even in this reduced version, is dazzling and all that jazz, and the choreography is nothing less than monolithic: not a moment, not a gesture seems left to chance. As with such later "music dramas" as Les MisÈrables, the book never relaxes into ordinary speech. Indeed, its passages of recitative are more inspired than all but a few of its songs, including the much-reprised title song. One can't imagine either Henry Krieger's music or Tom Eyen's lyrics filtering their way into the collective unconscious like the Gershwins' songs, until we hear the very elevators humming them. Yet as servants of Bennett's vision (and supervision), they carried their Tonys, for the show works.
And so do the performers in this production, most memorably Lillias While as Effie, who brings down the Act I curtain with one of the unlikeliest love songs (though "scream of rage" would be a more apt description) ever sung, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." In the more genial but equally robustious role of James Thunder Early, Herbert Rawlings Jr. is a one-man tornado of rhythm and blues. Indeed, there is no one in the cast who does not wring every last erg of theatrical energy from the material provided.
The story employed to support all these exertions concerns is the rise to fame and fortune of the Dreams, a singing group not unlike the Supremes. In Act I, Effie, the most talented singer of the group, is squeezed out of her lead spot and then out of the group altogether. In Act II, the Dreams sell out to glitz and glamour, while Effie picks herself up, dusts herself off and has her own big platinum-and-mink success-without having to lose weight! In the end everyone has one last good sing together, except Weyman Thompson, as glamorous, treacherous Curtis Taylor Jr., the Dreams' Svengali, who is left in the lurch by his four Trilbys. Personally, I think Curtis gets a raw deal, since the other characters were equally opportunistic, but Broadway (like Washington) is a world in which crime, though it may pay handsomely, still requires it scapegoat.
Dreamgirls isn't unequivocal, pulse-quickening fun in the way Lady, Be Good! is, but neither is it as dreadfully earnest as Les MisÈrables or as brassily numbskulled as Starlight Express. If you missed Dreamgirls the first time round, as I did, you made a mistake, which you can correct now, if you don't procrastinate. It's a limited run.